Bard of the Mushkegowuk takes top literary prize

Kate Harries, Today correspondent
12/26/08

TORONTO – It’s not often that a literary prize would be of much interest to the residents of remote communities in the swamplands north of the 51st parallel.

This year, however, one of their own was in the running.

Metis writer Joseph Boyden’s second novel, “Through Black Spruce,” was shortlisted for the Giller prize, Canada’s most prestigious fiction award.

“A lot of people were rooting for him, said Cree hunter and guide William Tozer, reached by phone in his home in Moosonee. The town of 3,000 and its hinterland, the Mushkegowuk territory, is where the story of “Through Black Spruce” unfolds.

Boyden, born in Toronto to a Metis mother and a Scots-Irish father, lived in Moosonee in the late 1990s when he worked as a teacher for Northern College.

That’s when he fell in love with the land and the people whose culture was forged in the vast territory of water and forest on the west coast of James Bay.

“It’s my second home,” Boyden said in a telephone interview from his present home, New Orleans, where he lives with his wife, author Amanda Boyden. The two are writers in residence at the University of New Orleans.

“I try to get up there four or five times a year,” he said.

He was not the favorite among the authors short-listed for the $50,000 Giller. But the unexpected win was greeted with delight by the Toronto literati at the black-tie awards gala in early November. A writer of indigenous heritage whose work weaves the traditional into the modern, telling a gripping suspense story of murder and survival – this was a moment long overdue.

Boyden accepted the prize in an emotional speech dedicating it to the First Nations peoples of Canada. “This is a very important time in your history,” he said, adding his thanks in Cree. “Meegwetch, Meegwetch.”

Up in Moosonee, “we felt pretty elated,” said Tozer. In fact, part of the fun for readers from Moosonee – or Moose Factory, the island across from the town where Moose Cree First Nation is located – is figuring out who’s who in the book.

“In parts, you know the people,” Tozer said. “Not to the full extent – there’s bits and pieces – it wouldn’t be exciting if he portrayed people as the way people really are.”

Boyden’s way with a good yarn was clear in his first novel, “Three Day Road,” a World War I saga that follows two young Cree men who enroll in the Canadian army and become an elite sniping duo. The tale alternates between Xavier, the warrior who returns shattered in body and soul, and his aunt, whose shamanistic powers are challenged to the fullest by his condition.

“Through Black Spruce” picks up the story of the two soldiers’ descendants. Again, the narration switches between two people – in this case Xavier’s son Will, the hunter who is in a coma, and Will’s niece Annie, who’s searching for her missing sister.

In both novels, there’s loss, pain and betrayal. Drugs are pervasive. So is racism and corruption.

But each time the action returns to the austere landscape of the Mushkegowuk, it’s as if a fresh wind has blown in. Boyden’s aboriginal characters are rooted and vivid – from the elderly Attawapiskat couple out goose-hunting on James Bay Island to the Ojibwe deaf-mute living on the streets of Toronto who becomes Annie’s protector.

The bars and parties of Montreal and New York, where Annie goes for clues to her fashion model sister’s disappearance, appear in a continuing hallucination.

Reality is the afternoon sunlight sparkling on a northern river.

For Boyden, that’s a reality that’s under attack. His most recent visit north was to help raise the alarm about plans to construct a series of new dams on the rivers that flow north into James Bay.

“Problem was,” he wrote in Macleans – Canada’s equivalent of Time or Newsweek – in August, “virtually none of the Ontario Cree had any idea. And still don’t.”

The plans are part of Ontario’s 20-year Integrated Power System Plan (IPSP), in the works since 2005 to address an anticipated shortage of energy supplies. On Sept. 8, the Ontario Energy Board began hearings on whether the IPSP should receive regulatory approval.

But the hearings were abruptly adjourned for six months after George Smitherman, the province’s new energy minister, issued a directive Sept. 17 for his officials to refine the IPSP to, among other matters, include more renewable sources and undertake more consultation with First Nations.

A number of factors underlay Smitherman’s demand and Boyden’s article, drawing national attention to Cree concerns, may have been one.

Manitoba Premier Gary Doer once joked at a briefing to reporters that a politician’s worst nightmare is to discover that Bobby Kennedy Jr. is paddling down a river in his province or state.

Kennedy, an outspoken environmentalist, founded Waterkeeper Alliance, an international network of citizen advocates who assume responsibility for a lake, river or bay.

Boyden talked to Kennedy about the plans for the Muskegowuk. “The Cree live on and by their waterways,” Kennedy told him. “It’s up to them to call the shots.”

Lake Ontario Waterkeeper Mark Mattson and trustee Gord Downie (who’s also lead singer for the Tragically Hip rock group) accompanied Boyden to Moosonee.

Now, William Tozer is going to be the Moose River basin waterkeeper. The odds are looking good for a Kennedy to be paddling down to James Bay one of these days. Xavier, Will and Annie would like that. Auntie might need to be persuaded.

(“Three Day Road” was published in the U.S. in 2006. “Through Black Spruce” will be launched in March. Both books are available in Canada.)

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